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The bizarre relationship between Alastair Campbell and the BBC

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Why are the BBC so keen to promote Alastair Campbell? It’s a question that seems to perplex even Campbell himself – as he revealed during the Orwell Prize discussion at yesterday’s Oxford Literary Festival (‘political diarists on political diaries’).

In the lead up to, during, and following the Iraq war Campbell bombarded the BBC with complaints about their coverage (or so says to the BBC – Campbell disputes the definition of ‘bombarded’). The Hutton Inquiry that then followed the tragic death of Dr David Kelly was immensely damaging to the BBC, causing the resignation of its Chairman and its Director General, and forcing other senior BBC figures out of their jobs.

Yet despite (because of?) this destructive history, the BBC seems to have gone out of its way to give Campbell airtime. There was the serialisation of his diaries, the promotion of his blog and, most remarkably, the lengthy 8.10am Today Programme interview that coincided with the publication of his diaries.

This interview was, according to Campbell, the longest ‘8.10’ in the history of the Today Programme. It ran past 8.20, past 8.25, through the 8.30 news, and did not conclude until almost 8.40am. This despite the fact that Benazir Bhutto was sitting waiting in the next room, having been booked for 8.25.

Campbell’s explanation was that they – the BBC – were desperate to find something to hang him with. “I’ve never seen so many suits watching an interview from the viewing suite” Campbell said. And John Humphrys kept pushing and pushing until finally realising Campbell wasn’t going to provide them with the rope.

But is there an alternative explanation? Could it be that, as in a dysfunctional relationship, the ruder Campbell is about the broadcaster and the more he tries to distance himself, the closer the BBC wants to get?

Certainly Campbell reflects back to the media many of the traits of which he accuses them – the willingness to escalate and use hyperbole, the fondness for snappy soundbites, the frequent inconsistencies and contradictions. And, of course, Campbell is always up for a good bruising fight – and the media like nothing if not a little argie-bargie.

Tony Benn, beside Campbell on the platform, made for a great double act. If Campbell was the straight man Benn was the comedian, the entertainer, the sentimentalist. As an illustration of old and new Labour it could not be bettered.

And like any good old Labour figure Benn raged against the dying of the light. “There is a danger” he said, that “once you’ve been in public life as long as I have people dismiss you as harmless”. A description Benn cannot abide. “I got a death threat the other day” he continued, “… I was so chuffed”. And indeed during the discussion he did his best to needle Campbell on Iraq, education and welfare.

Yet the two of them eventually found one thing on which they could both agree. The malignity of the British media. Neither Campbell nor Benn had a positive thing to say about the national press. More surprising of the latter than the former but still, telling.

It seems as though mainstream media is fast becoming the bogeyman of our times; the increasingly diffuse and brittle target of our public figures. How constructive or destructive these criticisms turn out to be is yet to be seen.

Alastair Campbell and Tony Benn were speaking at the Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival, at an event chaired by Jean Seaton (Chair of the Orwell Prize) and organised by the Orwell Prize in association with the Media Standards Trust.

Written by Martin Moore

April 3rd, 2008 at 4:15 pm